Students take a bow for their marvelous masks

MARY HOGAN ELEMENTARY School students perform a short scene from “The Magic Flute” during a presentation at the school last week. Several students created the fantastical masks that students will wear in the Opera Company of Middlebury’s production that opens Thursday at Town Hall Theater. Below right, Town Hall Theater Executive Director Doug Anderson acts with a large monster mask/puppet. Independent photos/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — More than a half-dozen Mary Hogan Elementary School sixth-graders will magically transform into a variety of colorful, whimsical creatures as part of the Opera Company of Middlebury’s staging of the much-celebrated “The Magic Flute” at the Town Hall Theater this Thursday through Saturday.
It will indeed be a string of creative “firsts” for the children. The Magic Flute will mark their debuts in an opera. And it will be the first time they will have designed their own attire for an on-stage performance.
Thanks to the tutelage of Mary Hogan art teacher Alyce Schermerhorn, paraprofessional René Ursitti and design tech Lisa Rader, the students will be wearing six fantastical masks that they and some of their sixth-grade colleagues painstakingly fashioned out of paper maché, spray paint, glue and such objects as feathers, glitter, pipe cleaners, fabric, duct tape, buttons, foam, egg cartons, cardboard, computer parts and balloons.
Mary Hogan students have actually been making masks for at least two decades. Schermerhorn has made it a regular, annual project for her older students. The masks have become more elaborate through the years, with the availability of additional materials and the boundless limits of the kids’ imaginations.
“If the kids dream something up, we figure out a way to make it happen,” Schermerhorn said with a smile.
Schermerhorn asks her students to imagine they work for Disney, a movie studio or a Broadway show, to inspire them to let their creativity go wild. At the same time, she encourages them to add their own touches to the masks, so they have a unique appearance.
“We try to make sure (the masks) are personalized, that they take it to the next level,” Schermerhorn said.
The results have been impressive, and have certainly caught the eye of THT Executive Director Doug Anderson during his occasional artistic expeditions to the Mary Hogan School, where the completed masks are periodically displayed. Anderson was so impressed by a the Mary Hogan students’ masks that he had a batch of them displayed at the THT’s Jackson Gallery around four years ago.
“It was one of our most beloved exhibits,” Anderson said. “It was so colorful and so surprising. The things (Schermerhorn) gets out of those kids is absolutely incredible.”
Anderson made a mental note to incorporate some of the Mary Hogan students’ artwork in a THT production.
“I’ve sort of kept that idea in my back pocket,” said Anderson, who refers to Schermerhorn, like her students, as “Ms. S.”
“I thought, ‘There will come a time when I will want to work with Ms. S,’” he added. “I had to wait for the right project.”
And that “right project” has finally arrived, in the form of “The Magic Flute.” It’s a family friendly opera that calls for flamboyant accouterments for the woodland beasts that permeate the storyline: The Queen of the Night persuades Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from captivity under a high priest named Sarastro. Instead, Tamino seeks to join Sarastro’s community. Tamino and Pamina successfully navigate a challenging initiation. Tamino is accompanied on his quest by another character, Papageno, who fails the trials but is nonetheless rewarded with the hand of his ideal female companion, Papagena.
Anderson wants the opera to be viewed through a child’s eyes. So he eschewed elaborate costumes and staging in favor of more basic props, costumes and adornments that children might design and make in a playroom. For example, Papageno — a bird enthusiast in the opera — often takes the stage in a jacket covered with beautiful feathers. But the THT version will have Papgeno’s jacket covered with colorful post-it notes to mimic feathers.
Anderson reasoned that some student-made masks would fit very well into a child’s imagining of “The Magic Flute.” So this past June, he asked Schermerhorn if she could gather together some young mask-makers to conjure a unicorn, a peacock, a rabbit, a jellyfish, a mustached hyena, and a monster.
Schermerhorn eagerly took on the assignment and assembled a group of 11 then-fifth-graders. They include Abigael Tufts, Dahlia Harrison, Vivian Ross, Arianna Graham-Gurland, Ainsleigh Johnson, Lia Robinson, Eleanna Sellers, Zack Wilkerson, Wu Dong, Clyde Malhotra and Stella Andrews.
Participants attended a week-long camp that Schermerhorn held last June for the children to make headway on their masks for “The Magic Flute.” They finished their wearable artwork this month as sixth graders. Seven of the 11 young artists will wear the creations during the upcoming, sold-out performances of the opera.
The masks — more like headdresses that will not shield the performers’ faces — are truly stunning.
Students had as much fun making the masks as they are now having wearing them.
Arianna Graham-Gurland liked how the masks evolved throughout the creative process.
“It kept changing; every time you’d come back, there’d be something more and something different than what you had planned,” she said. “It turned out really great.”
Graham-Gurland and Zack Wilkerson made the mask of what she called, “not your typical rabbit.” The creature has large, bright-blue cheeks, an orange nose, massive pinkish-red ears, and some leopard spots.
Dahlia Harrison also marvels at how the students’ original mask designs are so different from the final products. She worked on the mustached hyena.
Vivian Ross noted she and her classmates weren’t afraid to get messy during the project.
“When I got home, I’d find giant chunks of paper maché all over myself,” she said. “When I tried not to get any on me, it just continued to stick.”
Ross and Abigael Tufts worked on the peacock, endowed with giant, hot-pink feathers, a beak with purple spots on it, and eyes that are blue, white and black.
Anderson has been leading the students through rehearsals for “The Magic Flute,” and the young performers are anxious to display their masks to a wider audience.
This won’t be the last time that THT recruits students and their artistic skills for an opera or play.
“I will jump at every opportunity to involve Mary Hogan in these (performances),” Anderson said.
The students are already getting a standing ovation from their teacher.
“I’m very proud of them,” Schermerhorn said. “They did an outstanding job.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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